Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Week 3: Character!

Ok, before we get started I just have to say- Portland's public libraries are waaayyyyyy too lenient with their lending policies. People like me take advantage. Or as my hubby says, there must be lots of kids out there wondering where all the books have gone...

I am returning some this week, I promise!! I also have to say... the cliches are true- I feel like I've learned so much from teaching this class. I was pleased with the color in this lil' sketch I did yesterday:
(click for a larger view)

I've wanted to make an "Anne of Green Stables" mailer for a while. Hopefully, soon!!

Ok, let's get down to brass tacks:
Week 3, Character!

So, I began this class in a most annoying fashion, by saying, "I can't actually teach you how to create great characters." Annoying, but true- if I knew the secret to creating classic, beloved characters that will be adored the world over, I wouldn't be here- I'd be rolling around in my vault of money like Scrooge McDuck. BUT! Something I can say with some certainty is this- 

If you want to create great characters, you have to REALLY know them!

Inside and out, front to back. I think that many of the beloved characters in children's literature: Ramona, Anne of Green Gables, Olivia, Lilly, - are beloved because they are fully realized, three-dimensional characters. They have good qualities and bad. They generally go through a spectrum of emotions over the course of their story. So my first point was: before you set pencil to paper to create your illustration, you should know your character.

I read somewhere that some authors* (*precise footnoting skills) suggest taking magazine quizzes as if they are answering for their characters. I handed out a Character Personality Test in class (if you didn't get it, let me know- I can email it to you). It's just a simple checklist that can act as a starting point to getting to know your character. What is his or her favorite meal? Sport? Subject in school? Game? Is she shy, or outgoing? These things may seem irrelevant, but your character's personality affects absolutely everything they do. If you're drawing your character raising her hand in class, if she's shy she may shrink back in her chair, her hand barely above the level of the desk. If she's outgoing, maybe she's practically falling out of her chair in her eagerness. Carrying his or her personality throughout the book is essential to creating a believable character.

The second point I talked about was to think about how your character's personality would manifest itself not just in their person, but in their clothes, their hair, their room, their backpack. Essentially, every inch of your paper can contribute to expressing their personality!

Some Examples! Finally! I am much more of a visual learner. 

First up, I certainly appreciate the detail and care Robin Preiss Glasser goes to in developing her characters.

Every single detail in this illustration tells us that Ruby is a klutzy tomboy who still wants to play dress-up; an interesting conflict already. The tablecloth is stuck in her soccer cleat, the cupcakes are falling, the tea is spilling, the lid's falling off the teapot, her hair's a mess, her tiara is askance. Even the doll is sitting in an odd angle in her chair.

Preiss Glasser never takes the easy way out- Ruby is not sitting cross-legged on the floor, she's sprawled across the stool. The dad is not some stock character dad returning from work in a suit- he's got his keys in his mouth, the grocery bags are overflowing. Small details that make us believe this is an actual family, and we're in their world.

A character's bedroom is a great way to show their personality- continuing the soccer theme, there's the ball, and trophies on her shelf. And again, Ruby has a very distinct, expressive pose.
Comparing Ruby's bedroom to her grandmother's fussy cottage is pretty fascinating. Preiss Glasser even has distinct books on the coffee table, for crying out loud (Victorian Times and Palaces of St. Petersburg are two, in case you were wondering).

Moving on... Ah, Olivia. One of my favorites. She is one of those rare characters who can pull off a book that doesn't really have much of a plot. It's enough just to watch her go about her day. The endpapers already tell us something about her personality, and we don't even see her...

The copyright page...

And the beginning of the story. I love the discarded walkman. The story hasn't even STARTED yet and we have a sense of her character.

One thing I love love love is when an illustrator can capture just how small children are in a world built for grownups. I love how Olivia is just peeking out of the tub and over the dinner table. I think these perspectives are things kids can relate to.

Mo Willems is also great at seeing thing from a kid's point of view. Right from the cover of the book, we're taken down to Trixie's eye level. I think kids look at a lot of belt buckles.

(this book is also the inspiration for my preferred roller derby name, Knuckle Bunny - number, Too- in case you were wondering).
Another thing to consider when illustrating your book is: How are you going to distinguish your character in a classroom of other kids? Mo Willems chose to give Trixie big saucer eyes (all of the other kids just have little dots). She's also got a very detailed outfit on, whereas the other kids are wearing pretty plain outfits. I say, when in doubt, let your character's personality determine the features you highlight.

Mr. Willems isn't afraid to cut kids off at awkward spots. I love Trixie's head just peeking up from the stairs.

He also takes the kids-eye-view thing to heart. I once heard Brian Lies (of Bats at the Beach fame) give a talk at an SCBWI conference, and he said that everything changed for him when he started drawing everything standing on his knees. The world looks different when you're 3 feet tall, and that's your target audience.

Lilly! Oh, Lilly! Have you noticed that Olivia and Lilly are both very popular names now? Coincidence?!?  Anyway, even though all of the mice in Kevin Henkes' books look essentially the same, we have no problem picking out Lilly. Not only because of the happy lines around her head, but because of her signature red boots! And kids do get fixated on articles of clothing. I had a sweater with rainbow Scotties that I think I wore every day for the entire second grade.

Kevin Henkes is also great at bringing little telling details into the background- the calendar, Lilly's drawings on the wall, the hippie dad's Peace shirt. He also brings the same level of detail to the writing- Lilly's dad makes No-Frills Cheese Balls, the students do their creative thinking in the Lightbulb Lab, and Mr. Slinger wears artistic shirts and is sharp as a tack. Just as in Tea for Ruby, these are little details that ring true and keep us believing in Lilly's world.

Thusly, lastly- Calvin has always been one of my very favorite characters. And his expressions are always fantastic.

And I loved this cat's personality right off the bat. Mr. Pusskins unfortunately turns pleasant by the end of the book, but I'll just pretend in my heart that he keeps on being rotten.

C'est tout! Next week: narrative structure!


Nina Crittenden said...

Most excellent! Thank you for sharing all of this, it is invaluable to get such terrific insights into illustration! Anne of Green Stables? SO punny!

Lauren Castillo said...

I love this series of lessons, Vicki! Makes me want to take a month off and spend it at the library, really examining certain books from front to back. (Especially the characters!) Good work!! :)

wsirimart said...

i love all your great works !!! that all very crushed LOL , will following your illustrations :)

Christina Rodriguez said...

I'm eagerly awaiting "Anne of Green Stables" sooooo much! Love how you gave her puff sleeves.

Vicki said...

Thanks, you guys!

Kristin said...

I'm loving this! Thanks!